I just watched the fantastic new film about Abraham Lincoln, appropriately titled “Lincoln.” I was struck by the quality of Daniel Day Lewis’ performance, how he appeared to totally inhabit the character…defining what the 21st century will see as the real Lincoln. As one of my family members remarked, “I thought Lincoln had a deeper voice,” assuming like anyone else that the great man would have had a great orators voice.
Lincoln managed to be persuasive not through the dominance of appearance (he was a tall, though frail, man) but through the power of his thoughts and ideas. The men he dwelt with were equally adept at working the system, of making passionate speeches about the evils they were most fond of; yet Lincoln held fast to the all encompassing goal of ending the great evil of slavery.
It strikes me as almost unbelievable, but there are a large number of people in this country (not just in the backwards South) who believe that the Civil War was more about the cloudy notion of “States rights” then of the issues of millions of human beings used as cattle for the landed gentry. Lincoln was willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of men in a war between brothers…imagine how spiritually exhausting it was for him to know that every mortar launched, every bullet loaded, every bayonet attached to a riffle would be used to end yet another American life.
There is a moment in the movie when Thaddeus Stevens, ardent supporter of civil rights, comes home to deliver the actual draft of the 13th Amendment that had just been ratified, to his black house maid. Almost immediately afterwards you see him getting into bed, and she is there. He addresses her as his beloved. At his moment some in the audience (mostly elderly) either gasped or sniggered. To this day, in the 21st century white Americans of a certain vintage barely tolerate the idea of “race mixing.” One needs only to look towards the intense hatred the oldest Americans hold for President Obama, to see the dark stain of Southern racism carried over to the present.
Lincoln the man is almost wholly fogged over by the lens of history. He is considered by many historians the greatest of US Presidents…a label I myself feel is earned unlike modern pretenders such as Ronald Reagan. Lincoln, as we all know, was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, an actor. Today, the only way that Lincoln can live on in popular memory is through, ironically, an actor. The seed of brotherhood and compassion that Lincoln brought forth bloomed and nearly died in the years after his death. All of the achievements of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were nearly destroyed by over 100 years of Southern persecution.
After the upheaval of the 1960s and the momentous changes wrought by both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, the headlong fights today in Congress and the States (which are still trying to disenfranchise American citizens) the siren call of civil rights still calls to us. Lincoln would not stand to see our common heritage destroyed by the right wing of the very party he proudly served in.
From Lincoln’s second Inaugural address:
“If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”